December Walks 2012
The automatic flâneur, and the Garden of my (or Carpentras’) Delight.
“It is the gaze of the flâneur, whose mode of life still surrounds the approaching desolation of the city life with a propitiatory luster. The flâneur is still on the threshold, of the city as of the bourgeois class. Neither has yet engulfed him; in neither is he at home. He seeks refuge in the crowd…. In the flâneur the intelligentsia pay a visit to the market-place, ostensibly to look around, yet in reality to find a buyer. (Paris, Capital of the Nineteenth Century, Benjamin: 156)
In Provence you are part of a great conspiracy – characterised by a historical sentimentality – anachronism, ‘how it was’, vies with everything that is modern and contemporary, where the idea of ‘no’ time is tempered by the taking of time, of conviviality, and an ancient sociability overlain with the exploitation of a sun-drenched market-place:
“I’ve got a pretty good idea what the customer wants. People come by and they start talking – they need contact.’ Says Martin the secondhand clothes seller, who has read Guattari and Baudrillard and never fails to explain to me that he could be in my place if he hadn’t chosen freedom and wagered on “l’imaginaire”: “the market is relations with people. A sale is ultimately an instantaneous relationship between two persons- that’s really what it is. The market hasn’t given me any knowledge of this or that, it’s something deeper, it’s relations with people. The market is a concentrate of human relations.” (de la Pradelle: 85)
Sixteen days till Christmas Day, I imagine the town will be packed with anxious buyers. I enter Carpentras’ market, now made famous again, through Michelle de la Pradelle’s study of the role and function of stallholder markets in France, skirting the side of the empty ice rink with its sad looking coils of fairy lights drooping from its wooden railings. Concentrated on Carpentras, Pradelle’s exhaustive study of the types and kinds of exchange played out in the market reads as a classic expose of neo-liberal capitalism, its inauthenticity and trickery, while celebrating the theatricality of the market as a latter day utopia, where all can be made equal in this crafted mise-en-scene of traded desires and role-playing. This ambiguous and complex image, and the matrix of relationships she so carefully describes and embroiders appears barely evident today. Perhaps it is because it is December, the footfall evidently low and the trade slow. But most of all it must be because I am not here to play the market game, but am here to observe, as a kind of automatic flâneur – to reevaluate what she saw, while attempting to experience the market as spectacle as dispassionately as possible. It is also as a function of the language barrier, I am not able to openly banter and joke with the stallholders, even when they call out to me, catch my eye or try to strike up a conversation. And yet this is my habitual way of traversing a market – to observe and not play a part unless one is forced to. Nevertheless there are moments when you are entirely engulfed by the market’s sensuality: the smell of food, of the spices and the colours, seduced by all the flannery of the stalls, the way the products are displayed, or how the stallholders and their erstwhile customers interact.
For instance, watching for a moment how a stall is arranged, or as the market packs itself away how these little temporary stages have been constructed. Some made with wooden trestles, others with more elaborate folding metal frames, the table tops ingeniously constructed from rolled mats of slated wood or merely created by placing cut sections of plywood that have been designed to fit into the stallholders battered vehicle. There on the Place de Theatre crammed into the back of a battered green Renault people carrier, all the folded rugs in see-through plastic carriers taken from his stand, a stallholder carefully slides in the last of his small plywood squares and finally closes the boot. Another lady, slight and small, is maneuvering the last of her large umbrella awnings onto her van roof rack. No one helps her and she is hardly tall enough to touch the van’s roof let alone push the heavy object up, but she is practiced at this and will just have to do it. The back of the van is filled with the baskets and paraphernalia she was using to deck her rustic bio stand, with its pots of organic tapenade, vegetable pate, homepressed oil, and handmade pastries.
In Brecht’s Threepenny Novel Peachum’s factory for beggars paints a similar picture, of the manufactured beggar, with their fake limbs, their raggedy costumes and carefully apportioned prosthetics. This Dickensian vision, mirrors the illusions of the market precisely in its vast theatricality, of being part of a vast complex game in which you are taken in, say by The school for beggars, or as you have just been taken in by the machinations of this ordinary market:
“ In order to combat the increasing tight-fistedness of mankind, Mr Peachum had opened a shop in which the meanest beggar could hire accessories guaranteed to soften the stoniest of hearts’ (Brecht: 19)
But please – I am really not interested in your sausages or your curly lettuce. No, I have come to locate the elusive rabassiers or trufflers that Michelle de la Pradelle describes. Where, can you tell me, is the infamous truffle circle? But I have not the heart to refuse these… these bunches of shriveled beetroot.
Intrigued by Pradelle’s short chapter on this special market within the market, I am eager to witness its workings. For there was something in the earthy air – a rash of books, both fiction and non-fiction, that had raised the humble truffle into the acme of both a mysterious luxury, and as a unique survival from some pre-industrialised exchange culture. For truffles, apparently, are only to be found in the wild, undomesticated spores, they need to be hunted down by trained dogs and their hunting masters. Thus the rabassier is made out to be the last genuine hunter-gatherer of Euroland, with their cloth bags and wads of used Euronotes. They seem to be the epitome of a mythic provencal character. That general attitude described by Lisa in Zola’s serial novel The belly of Paris, of making a living merely to enjoy ones life, encapsulates this Midi philosophy, a way of living that seems to be so openly displayed in the Provencal Market:
“The only reason people should care about money is that you need it to live. People like comfort, that’s natural. But as for making money for the sake of it, and giving yourself far more bother making it than you get pleasure out of it, well. I’d rather just sit quietly at home. In any case…we’re happy to make a hundred sous at a time and be able to enjoy them.” (Zola: 51)
Now I am wandering automatically through the streets of this medieval enclosed city, restaged and rebuilt in a number of styles and concealing numerous grand public buildings with their variety of open spaces. In front of the solid Renaissance masonry of the Palais de Justice, and underneath its carved portal with opened jawed lions, a stand with row on row of gaudy coloured furry jump suits sits in the sun; pantomime costumes – grenouille pyjamas? This is the rectangular square, almost at the centre of the old quarter, now rechristened the Place de Charles de Gaulle. On the steps of the Eglise Notre Dame de l’Observance teenagers loll with their mobile phones, blocking the church entrance, and around the corner in the cool shade of the sidesteps other groups sit eating takeaway food… At the far end as it splits right into the Place d’Inguimbert, or carries on down the Rue de Republique. Here at this busy junction four or five individuals are dressed in white throwaway overalls, wearing white dust masks, handing out leaflets to anyone who passes. They are campaigning against the Nuclear industry’s proliferation, and plan a human chain around the ramparts of Avignon on Sunday. They seem old, veteran campaigners inured to the indifference of the passing shoppers. Most of the leaflets now litter the elegant place with its special bins for dogshit:
Buying one’s turnips in front of one of France’s oldest synagogues, one’s cap at Barnabé’s in front of the Roman victory arch described by Prosper Mérimée, and one’s fresh peas beneath the belfry of the Counts of Toulouse – these are not matters of indifference…the market would not be what it is without the imagery that goes with it and the imagery it has elicited…Dreaming is the order of the day here on Friday mornings. (12)
Travelling into, through and out of time, in the fresh autumn air, midday now passed. The market is coming to an end… The Place du Marche aux Oiseaux is entirely empty but for a fountain pouring its asymmetrical spouts over a lime green child’s inflateable ring, abandoned to the glistening, clear water.
Pascal’s tour through the city after the spot drawing may be thought of as the act that opens the market. Once he’s done, the market is complete and ready to function within its assigned limit. A temporary community has been instituted on the basis of the two categories of stallholder, regulars and spot drawers; a community made up of all the various merchants who have or have just obtained a spot. (de la Pradelle: 161)
I am particularly intrigued by Pradelle’s figure of Pascal. The placier Pascal, who somehow distributes spaces to the irregular stallholders by the ancient democratic device of drawing lots, or in this specific instance, the drawing from a hat of numbers that allocate the last empty places. He is said to do this from his temporary office in the Café de Rich. I am sitting in the very café right now, drinking a coffee and reading about his work. Next time I must visit the market as it sets up around 7 am and see if I can catch this figure at his/her work. He promenades through the streets given over to the market sharing out the unallocated space of the market to those lucky enough to hold a lot for the day, with the special authority of chance and the placier (161-165). And yet even this device is theatrical as the final arbiter is still this figure of Pascal, who holds this unelected position purely through his work and his apprenticeship to the former placier.
‘…among sellers, Carpentras has a reputation as a “good market”, not only because “you can do a good day’s work there” but also thanks to this egalitarian mode of allocating vacant spots. The publicness of the procedure is reassuring, and they know it serves no purpose to blame chance.’(de la Pradelle:163)
What I am also surprised at is the lack of Gendarme or the ubiquitous Police Muncipal. Are there other ways of policing the market or is the space and time designated for its appearance a signal for the heavy-handed symbols of the state to disappear – to allow for free exchange and discourse? Maybe they don’t have enough of a sense of humour to stand the banter, or driven from the stage without their customary authority (now this really is an agora) – there are immigrants, foreigners and automatic flâneurs – in the labyrinth of medieval streets the opportunity for intermingling and anonymity. Everyone is passing through, even the stallholders who hold onto their allocated place only for the few brief hours of market time and then slip away. At around one o’clock all that is left of the market is some plastic wrapping dancing in the light wind, and discarded cardboard flapping, florescent signs with ‘@10 for 2 etc.’ perched on their naked metal stands. In the Place Aristide-Briand (Place de la Theatre) the Credit Lyonnais cashpoints have been stickered – “Demain on partage les richesses, Banquier gare a tes fesses! Du Boulet, Pas d’agois/Le jeune de la Galere….” – Galleyed slavery and the neo-liberal “freedom” of the marketplace, as against the exceptional liberty of the agora, with all its dissent and antagonism, laid bare.
Walk 10 11 December
Sault and its hinterland.
It’s Sunday Lunchtime, and we decide to start our exploration of Sault by taking a meal in the local hotel. The low ceilinged dining area is packed with families enjoying generous portions for their lunch. We are obviously late, even though it has just gone one, and have to watch the other tables being served coffee and dessert. But once we have ordered we don’t have to wait long before we too are tucking into our own, enormous, helpings of food. We find it hard then, on leaving the restaurant to begin our walk out of the village, not only because of the excess food we have just put away but because we have to negotiate the tight twisting road out of the village. At the final turn of the road we stop to admire an impressive monument to the Resistance that reads in black letters – ‘POUR VOTRE LIBERTE ILS ONT DONNE LEUR VIE’. When we stopped the other side of the valley, we took a picture of a grave marker carved with the Cross of Lorraine (Croix de Lorraine) in memory of Leon Blanc ‘ICI TOMBA POUR LA FRANCE – LEON BLANC – LE 28 FEVRIER 1944’. (from Caromb, Monieux or La Croix de Fer)
After searching for a few minutes we find the path from the road leading down past the village sewage works. Its overflow is clotted with raw manure spilling onto the pathway and caught in the dry grass. The village is marketing itself as a walking resort, and a special place for nature lovers. This isn’t a good start, the failure of the village waterworks, not to be installed with a working trap (a u-bend or equivalent). We quickly turn away from the site and follow a brambly pathway skirting a shallow, almost dry river bed. Passing under a well-proportioned stone viaduct that straddles the valley, between the village and the adjoining part of the Vaucluse Mountains, the landscape flattens out into a plain crisscrossed by fields filled with earthen hues. Brown earth turned, with brown trees covered in an orange brown lichen, and in the fields the lines of lavender clipped or left to die in brittle grey brown clumps. Everywhere these subtle hues of winter and dormancy predominate. Perhaps these darker colours have been drawn out of the ground, as it is noticeably damper up here, as if the mist has left a fine layer of wintry moisture everywhere. There is less wind, less crisp air to dry the ground, hidden behind the vast flank of Mont Ventoux and the Vaucluse. This protected plain of the river Nesque that lies below Sault is appreciably higher, over 700 metres above sea level. Sault and its hinterland seem coloured by a different air. You can imagine this place before the new D1 road was cut over the low mountains, being totally isolated in winter, far from the dry Rhone Valley below.
We walk along the edge of this plain past a field scrapped back to the stone, ready to receive more landfill. There are improvised dumps by the side of the road and debris that must have been thrown from the viaduct. This field seems to be an attempt to tidy up all the exposed rubbish. We carry along a flat, hedgeless track toward La Chapelle Saint-Pierre. From a distance you would never suspect that this building was a chapel, as it looks just like a small house built with two storeys. The only visible marks of its function (now defunct) are a small oval alcove above the door, and a curved bulging from its rear wall. It appears empty but the shutters are painted a bright blue above the locked wooden doors. I imagine a small chapel below, with living quarters above for some rural priest. It does not appear to be especially old – perhaps built at the end of the 19th C, now abandoned. It was possibly used for less than a century.
At this point we turn east and start ascending a steep track – marked as the GR4. It runs parallel with and above the Combe de St-Guilem. On the way up we stop to pick a frond of Mistletoe fused to a small oak. After climbing for 10 minutes in silence we hear, quite close the roar of motorbikes. It comes roaring up the trackway and there it is a brand new four by four motorbike straddled by a couple. He looks delighted, she a little embarrassed or at least ill at ease. Not so comfortable wobbling up a steep rutted track being sprayed with mud and stones – Sunday pleasures.
We carry on climbing, with the smell of diesel fumes and the vehicle’s roar receding up the pathway. After perhaps another 10 minutes we hear the bike returning and stand aside to let them jiggle past. I hope they’re not planning on coming back and forth. We reach the top of the climb but despite the trees clearing can hardly make out where we are. I am slightly disorientated, we are no longer on the map and there are a number of unmarked pathways leading off from this point. But to avoid the bike and to turn back to Sault I opt to leave the marked GR4 pathway, and carry along, through dense low woodland. The vegetation changes as we descend steeply into another enclosed valley. The trees here now prehistoric in appearance, entirely stripped of their leaves but encased in a green furry lichen that drips from their branches. It is as if their limbs are covered in a rough green hair, clumps of damp lichen that give the place an ancient, undisturbed feel. The air is cold and damp. We are completely in the shade, and of begun to discuss the fierce reputation of wild boar. From these ancient woods you can imagine our ancestors hunting boar with spears and clubs. We start climbing away from this primeval location; its eerie spell broken when we pass half a green plastic tractor, the two front wheels embedded into the undergrowth, below the track. Everywhere on the trees we pass, or disintegrating on the ground, rusted metal or brittle plastic signs marked – Defense de Chasse, Reserve Chasse etc.
We come upon a source – Sources des Conchettes. It should be pouring out water from under a fault in the limestone rocks. But it is barely dribbling. The small stone basin in which the water collects is green, as is the pipe from which Marguerite decides to drink. All around us there is a soft gentle mossiness, a furriness in the air, everywhere the warm breath of sangliers and mountain fires crackling. We feel we are in a place frequented by wild animals or our primordial ancestors, as much as by modern man. We feel tired now, and a long way from the warm restaurant in the village. We seem to have walked perhaps three times the distance that we did when we climbed into these woods. I can see that the light is failing. Eventually, we reach a road which we assume can only lead us back toward Sault. As we walk, quickly now down the road, we pass a dump. The setting sun illuminates the rusting cars, and dismembered fridges, turning them a beautiful soft ochre orange. As a short cut we take the old metalled stony track that runs straighter but parallel to the newer road. It runs passed the back of some houses and drops us down a steep incline, just by the viaduct we went under two hours ago.
As we return across this 19th Century bridge, with its neat wrought iron rails, we get a magnificent view of Sault in the twilight, sitting proudly on the overhanging rocks, the foundations of the town walls fused together with the limestone promontory which is covered in variegated streaks of water, the rock leached and stained, green, dark brown, reddish and white against the soft yellowing stone. The last vestiges of the sun slip down its sides and into the hollows of the ancient rocks, where brown stains the sides of the caves and… the old cobbled ways, steeped… brown earth, ordure, the shit returning back to the earth – even up here the ravages of environmental denigration are evident and yet the ground adapts, oozes, secretes.
Walk 12 13 December and later
Unlikely Companions: Tarascon, Alyscamps and la Roque sur Pernes & the Souleiado Demery Museum.
Everything seems more scruffy now winter has stripped the trees and hedges of cover; leaving the orchards and gardens without leaves, which appear more grey, almost cold, stained with the dry dust of summer and yet bare. The roadside is filled with plastic detritus, cigarette packets and drinks cartons, and the fields are strewn with dead matter, littered with ripped plastic sheeting and blue plastic vine sheaves. The polytunnels are cloudy and brittle looking, concealing dry unfertile soil. Rubbish bins, barbed wire, the stained plastered walls, the bald verges – everything has a less tendered, more exposed appearance, as if the wind in its force has just passed and stripped the soft light of the sun away and left the landscape empty. We spot corrals of small brownish grey sheep huddled together protected on their meager pasture by two or three large white shaggy looking sheep dogs. Are they guarding the flock against prey or other men(?).
It is also much much colder today, and the market traders at Tarascon, selling socks, shoes, and clothes stamp their feet. They complain to each other and the customers of the freezing weather. Walking through the almost deserted streets of old Tarascon, you can feel the poverty soaked into the battered stonework. Single men walk sullenly along pavements with their heads lowered. We reach a place where the streets open out, by the restored theatre, where a man is hanging out, hunched in the cold. Everywhere on the buildings that rough cast plaster, coloured a light pinkish ochre, of varying shades to emulate the luminosity of the stone – but in the winter it looks grey, water stained and weather beaten, its surface eaten by mould. These man made renderings begin to look more macabre, dirtied and dull. They are as far from the beautiful crust of stone that absorbs and reflects the light on the older buildings, as concrete is from the blowing sands of a desert. We find the Souleiado Charles Demery Museum heavily wrapped in scaffold and being repaired at the back facade. Christo has not come to Tarascon though:
‘The Souleiado style draws its inspiration directly the soul of Provence. A strong soul, which is synonymous with sun, colors, heat, smell of summer and vacation. Féria, guitars, sea, dance, party, and sensual pleasures.
The women of the South, the women who love the South, have that extra sensuality and joy of living inspired by the southern sun. That gentle sun makes them feel beautiful and young when they are 20 years old. Beautiful and young when they are 40 years old.Beautiful and young when they are 60 years old.
The Souleiado style is based on that insolent confidence. It’s a style for the woman who knows how to take advantage of every facet of her life. The clothes she likes to wear are timeless, like her. Her style is not from yesterday nor tomorrow. Her elegance doesn’t care about what fashion dictates, her sensuality defies time.’ (http://www.souleiado.com/l-univers-souleiado/le-style-souleiado/english)
This is the new, revived spirit of Souleiado, or so it is claimed. Perhaps it would have made Charles Deméry nauseous. Who knows, he was obviously a showman and knew how to create a ‘brand image’: all those photos of actresses and Picasso with his floral shirt unbuttoned to the waist. But this luxury production, that is Souleiado now, seems a long way from the artisan beauty of Indian-style block printed cloth – an all together other type of luxury than one manufactured by ad-men and by the ridiculous sanctity of public relations bullshit – Reproducing what? Ah the soul of the south, that sensuous femme… it is as if Daudet was standing in the shadows chuckling at us, tartar, ta ta, for now, tar tar in. Tartarin, now there is an imaginary soul.
In the upstairs museum, in the small room between the displays of cloth and the mocked up workshop, are two small rooms. One has an antique indienne style clothe on the bed – it is toile de joie, with views of ancient monuments, in which southerners depicted joyfully playing their traditional games, inhabit the foreground. These games include boules but also the less fashionable (now) bear baiting with an attendant whip and dancer. How times change or…
When Deméry gave the company to his nephew Charles, there were 10 employees. Charles was a young engineer who came from Paris because he wanted to rest after falling sick. He fell in love with the factory and created the brand Souleiado in 1939 (souleiado means “when the sun shines through the clouds after the rain” in Provence)
His wife, Hélène, was an excellent seamstress, and when a good client, Madame Vachon, suggested in 1947 that she should make a collection of dresses, Hélène started with pleasure. It was a great success. In 1950, an Italian client from Florence decided to open a Souleiado store. Unfortunately, Hélène died in a car crash one year later.
Charles was left alone, and continued on the path they traced together. In 1952 there were more than 300 employees through out 4 buildings: the hand printing in the Aiminy mansion, the mechanical printing in St Etienne du Grès, the sewing studios in Avignon (rue Thiers), and the administration in Tarascon. 80% of the items are exported to other countries. (http://www.souleiado.com/l-univers-souleiado/un-peu-histoire/english)
Or after swallowing this soul full of claptrap we might be forgiven of thinking that times have not changed. Ah, Helene you were a fine seamstress!
Later, arriving in Arles, the ring road is chock full with cars – is there a market on? We do not stay to find out but turn off from the centre of town toward Alyscamps. The gates are just reopening after lunch break. Outside the entrance a bunch of young men are sharing some cans of beer. There is a lady talking sternly to them. They call after her and us as we go through into the tomb site. They seem a bit frisky. But they stay outside the gated alleyway. Later we see the same lady through the open door of a medieval tomb where she is collecting a bucket and tools (she must be the head restorer).
The pathway of tombs is rather sad – all the good sarchophagi have long since gone, stolen to decorate buildings, reused as animal troughs (this according to the official notice) or relocated to various Archaeological museums. It seems stripped of life, except for the team of cleaners slowly and nonchalantly finishing blowing and tidying the leaves off the mossy tombs. At the end of the alleyway is an oversized church structure with an uncanny metal curtained entrance (a bit S & M or Butcher’s shop). When we enter we are immediately struck by a certain eeriness, a disturbing sound that permeates the structure, as if the building is breathing but with a strange whistling sigh. We try to find where this strange wheezing sound is emanating – its cause is either wheezing doves or pigeons nesting in the dome archways…. We can just make one out, a dove-like pigeon propped on a ledge, the wheezing pigeon of Alyscamps – somehow very appropriate for this site?
18 December la Roque-sur-Pernes.